Puerto Rico is a vibrant island with friendly locals who love to eat and celebrate. It’s been a difficult few years on the island, with natural disasters and lockdowns, and some locals will tell you they’re over being resilient. They’re ready to party again and welcome tourists to join in the fun.
The longest holiday season
2023 started with a bang in the walled city of Old San Juan, with the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. This street festival, affectionately called la SanSe, was the culmination of months of Christmas celebrations. And after a few quiet years, the turnout for la SanSe was huge.
With free concerts, street food, drinks and dancing in the streets, la SanSe is an incredible time to visit Puerto Rico. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of this unofficial end to Christmas, with reggaetón music, brightly costumed vejigantes, and delicious street food like salty, deep-fried cod bacalaitos.
Fried everything — eat it all
Even if you don’t visit in January, a big part of your Puerto Rico experience will be the food. You’ll discover sofrito, an aromatic blend of garlic, onion, cilantro and peppers that is a staple ingredient. And you might get a taste of pitorro, Puerto Rican moonshine made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane and adding spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or vanilla.
Everything in Puerto Rico comes back to cuisine. Even if you don’t consider yourself a foodie, a visit to the island likely means experiencing new-to-you flavors, and you are going to love them.
An immersive way to try new foods is to dine Chinchorreo style, with a group. This usually means hiring a bus to drive you around, stopping at various hole-in-the-walls and food stalls to sample each establishment’s take on fried food. Eat alcapurrias and cheese turnovers in one spot with a view, then journey on to a dive bar for empanadillas and pastelillos. There will be music, drinking and dancing along the way, and you might end up sampling comfort food well into the night.
If you’d rather drink and dine on foot, get the lay of the land with a walking tour. Andy Rivera of the Puerto Rico Historic Buildings Drawings Society guides an interesting Old San Juan Architecture Tour. Stroll with him along blue cobblestones to learn the history of the city’s colorful buildings, walk through narrow breezeways and discover hidden courtyards. Rivera also shares important details like who invented the pina colada, where to find the best mojito and how to dine like a local in San Juan. The trick, he says, is “the uglier the facade, the better the food.”
But plan to have at least one extravagant meal in San Juan. Make a reservation to dine at the Chef’s Table at Epicuro Culinary Center. Here you can share a unique dining experience with 11 new friends, watching the engaging Puerto Rican Chef Antonio Pérez prepare a five-course dinner in front of you. You’ll enjoy gourmet dishes with baby scallops, duck, tuna and braised short rib, paired with different wines. And for dessert, a magnificent chocolate souffle delivered piping hot from the oven.
Then get out of town
San Juan is amazing, but there’s a whole island to explore, with beaches, bioluminescent bays, mountains and caves. And, of course, more food.
It’s worth the hour-long drive from San Juan to Ciales to eat at Casa Vieja. This roadside restaurant is decorated like an old-fashioned Puerto Rican jíbaro house and makes you feel like you’re eating pasteles with family. Arrive early because the line starts before it opens, and for good reason. You’ll want to order family style so you can try as many dishes as possible.
The views from the restaurant, and throughout Ciales, are stunning. Mountains are lush green peppered with the red-orange blossoms of flamboyan trees. Try hiking, spelunking and caving in this area. Go To Ciales offers personalized adventure tours.
Where to stay
Less than 15 minutes after leaving the San Juan Airport, you can be checking in at the Royal Sonesta San Juan on Isla Verde Beach. Book an oceanview room so you can admire the turquoise water from your balcony.
The Royal Sonesta has a beautiful back plaza of towering palms and pools, where you can relax to the chirps of tiny coqui frogs. Head through the back gate and you’ll be on a public beach, where you can rest on a hotel lounger or stroll through the sand.
With direct flights from Dallas and no need for a passport, Puerto Rico is an easy Caribbean getaway for Texans. You don’t have to convert currency or go through customs — just stroll out of San Juan Airport and into tropical weather and a festive atmosphere.
Cover photo courtesy Discover Puerto Rico
Heidi Gollub is an editor for Forbes Marketplace who lives in Austin with her husband and five children. She grew up globetrotting so she tries to whisk her kids off to explore the world as often as possible.